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Glossary of Linguistic Terms

Reference: David Crystal's Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition, Blackwell Publishers, 2003).


affix: a morpheme which can only be used when added to another morpheme (such as un- and -ish in unselfish).

alphabet: a type of writing system in which a set of symbols (letters) represents the distinctive sounds of a language.


bilingual: having the ability to speak two languages.


clitic: a form which resembles a word, but cannot stand on its own, being dependent on a neighbouring word. An example of a clitic is the ’m in I’m.

colloquial: describes a variety of a language used in informal speaking situations.

consonant: a speech sound made by a narrowing in the vocal tract so that airflow is blocked or restricted; the written symbol used to represent such a sound.


diacritic: a mark, such as an accent, underline, or bar, which is added to a written symbol to indicate an alteration of how the symbol should be pronounced.

dialect: a regionally or socially distinctive variety of a language, characterized by a particular set of words and grammatical structures. Any language with a reasonable number of speakers will develop dialects, especially if there are geographical barriers separating groups of speakers.


endangered language: a language with less than 200 fluent speakers.


grammar: (1) the system of structural relationships in a language: how words and part of words combine to form sentences. (2) a systematic description of a language. Comprehensive descriptions of the word structure and sentence structure of a language are known as reference grammars, while teaching grammars are descriptions designed specifically for teaching or learning a language.


high(er) language: a more formal variety of a language, sometimes only used in special situations, such as ceremonies.


International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): the alphabet used by linguists to uniquely represent the sounds of the world’s languages. A transcription of a word in the IPA can show every phonetic detail of how each sound is pronounced.

isolate, isolated language: a language with little or no structural or historical relationship to any other languages. Isolates in B.C. include Ktunaxa, Nuxalk, and X̱aaydaa Kil.


language: the abstract system underlying the speech (and if applicable, writing system) of a community. It is usually said that people speak different languages if they are not able to understand each other’s speech. There are over 34 distinct First Nations languages in British Columbia.

language authority: an assembly which represents a language or speech community. Some language authorities involve all communities within a First Nation. In other cases, where dialect differences are great, it is useful to have more than one language authority.

language family: A group of languages which historically developed from a common source or "parent language". According to linguists, eight of the eleven major aboriginal language families of Canada are found in B.C.: Algonquian, Dene (Athapaskan), Salish, Tlingit, Tsimshianic, and Wakashan, plus the language isolates Ktunaxa and X̱aaydaa Kil.

Groupings within a language family may be referred to as sub-families - such as Coast Salish and Interior Salish within the Salish family. A language can be described at various levels of classification within language families and sub-families. English can be classified as Anglo-Frisian, West Germanic, Germanic, or Indo-European. Similarly, SENĆOŦEN can be described as Northern Straits Salish, South-Central Salish, Coast Salish, or at the broadest level of classification, simply Salish.

language isolate: see isolated language.

language planning: a deliberate attempt to address the communication issues of a community by studying its languages and dialects and developing an official language policy.

language revitalization strategy: a program of support and/or teaching designed to improve the use of an endangered or minority language.

lexical item: a unit of vocabulary - a word or part of a word.

lexicon: a complete inventory of the lexical items of a language; a dictionary.

linguistics: the scientific study of language.

linguistic orthography: a writing system based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). In British Columbia, linguistic orthographies generally use local forms of the Americanist variant of the IPA, containing symbols such as: ʔ, xʷ, ƛ, and y̓. A few BC languages, such as Nłeʔkepmxcín and Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm, have adopted linguistic orthographies as their standard.


morpheme: the smallest meaningful unit of language. A word (such as self) can be a morpheme, but a morpheme can also be a part of a word which cannot stand on its own (such as un- and -ish in unselfish).

morphology: the study or description of the structure or forms of words.


native speaker: someone for whom a particular language is a first language, learned naturally during childhood.


orthography: a standardized system for writing a specific language – including both the symbols used to write the language, and the conventions for which symbol refers to which sound.


phoneme: the minimal unit in the sound system of a language which identifies a contrast in meaning. For example, in English, the sounds [p] and [b] are different phonemes because substituting one for the other changes the meaning of the word - e.g. pin to bin. Orthographies which show a close correspondence between letters and sounds – ideally, one distinct letter for each distinct sound - are described as phonemic. A phonemic transcription of a word shows only the details of pronunciation which are unpredictable based on the sound structure of the language.

plural: a form of a word which refers to more than one thing.

practical orthography: an alphabet or syllabary developed for writing and teaching a language, often using symbols that are already familiar and accessible to language speakers. Practical orthographies for BC First Nations Languages generally try to use only those symbols found on an English typewriter keyboard, although a few extra letters or diacritics (such as accents, underlines, or bars) are often needed.

prefix: a morpheme added to the beginning of a root word (such as un- in unselfish).


reduplication: a process of repetition where the form of a prefix or suffix reflects some or all of the characteristics of the root word. For example, in Nisg̱a'a, the singular form of the word for "blue" is gwisgwooskw and the plural form is gwixgwisgwooskw. Part of the root word is duplicated to form the prefix.

root: the basic form of a word, which cannot be further broken down. For example, teach is the root in the word teacher. Roots may also include "bound" forms which are not complete words by themselves, such as ceive in receive, deceive, conceive, etc.


schwa or shwa [?]: a vowel sound heard, for example, at the beginnings of the English words ago and amaze. In BC First Nations orthographies, this sound may be represented with the International Phonetic Alphabet letter ?, or by e, u, or other vowel symbols.

singular: a form of a word which refers to just one thing.

sister languages: two or more languages which derived historically from the same source. (See language family.)

sleeping language: a language which currently has no fluent speakers.

standard: a prestigious variety of a language used within a speech community. A standard variety of a language cuts across regional differences and provides a unified means of communication and a norm which can be used in writing and teaching the language.

stress: the degree of force used in producing a syllable. A stressed syllable may be longer, louder, or higher pitched than nearby unstressed syllables. A stressed syllable may sometimes be marked with an accent, or followed by a single straight quote.

syllabary: a writing system in which each symbol represents a syllable (usually a sequence of consonant + vowel) rather than a single sound. Syllabaries are used to write many Algonquian languages in central Canada, such as Nehiyawewin, or Plains Cree, and have also been used for Dene languages in British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon, such as Dakelh, Dene Tha, and Dane-zaa.

suffix: a morpheme added to the end of a root word (such as -ish in unselfish).

syntax: the rules governing the way words are combined to form sentences in a language.


tone: the distinctive pitch level of a syllable. In many languages, including Halq’eméylem, the tone carried by a word is an essential indicator of the meaning of the word.

trade language: a new language formed by two or more communities who can’t understand each other’s languages attempting to communicate.

transcription: a method of writing down speech sounds in a systematic and consistent way.


vowel: a speech sound made without complete closure or friction in the mouth, so that the air escapes easily over the centre of the tongue; the written symbol used to represent such a sound.


word: a unit of expression which is intuitively recognized as a unit by all native speakers of a language.
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